Monday, October 26, 2015

The Fifth Horseman is Fear (1965)

Set during the Nazi occupation of Prague, Czech filmmaker Zbyněk Brynych's "The Fifth Horseman is Fear" (1965) presents a riveting portrait of an atmosphere of paranoia and impending doom, as an old Jewish doctor is faced with a moral dilemma that could cost him his life. The title derived from the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, refers to the German politics of fear that resulted in an environment of all round dread and unrelenting chaos.

Dr. Braun (Miroslav Machácek in a tour de force performance), forbidden to practise medicine any longer, is now reduced to being a sort of warehouse-man for the Nazis, cataloging confiscated property of Jews who have already been sent packing. Aware and apprehensive of what's to come, Braun constantly looks over his shoulder and sometimes hallucinates about the secret police following him. When an injured resistance fighter is brought to his attention for some treatment, Braun is faced with a quandary of a lifetime. Should he serve his lost profession in the name of humanity and face the naturally disastrous consequences, or should he go on living like a zombie puppet of the Nazis?

Of course, he chooses to jump right in, to heal a wound after several years, his hands trembling, both out of fear of messing up the job for lack of practice, as well as out of fear of certain death if reported. The question of keeping the deed under wraps proves to be a daunting one, as unavoidable physical pain threatens to make the patient scream and give everything away. Morphine would help, but getting a hold of it in such times proves to be a herculean task, let alone the tough job of hiding the patient from the secret police who often raid the building, given that the neighbours are just as helpless, and the sneaky building secretary/warden, Mr. Fanta (Josef Vinklár) could very well be an informant!

It is astonishing how dense the framework of the film is, for a modest run time of just above 90 minutes. The film begins on a deliberately off-kilter note with random shots of either crowded streets or empty back alleys, with suspicious looking men keeping a watch, edited in a seemingly haphazard manner. There are shots of fascist posters on the wall, urging citizens to report information, presumably about the resistance, in order to ensure their safety. 

A rather disquieting piano score accompanies the introduction of Dr. Braun in the confiscated property registration department. It is a nightmarish setting, with large walls full of clocks, a depressing symbol of time itself being snatched away from hapless Jews. Other goods such as musical instruments and other belongings occupy the huge office building as the employees go about their jobs like the living dead.

The unusual editing and visual technique establishes a mood of chaos and uncertainty at the outset. It is a situation where almost everything remains unclear. A sense of tension looms, as most others await new regulations, while Dr. Braun seems to be certain where it's all headed, and it doesn't seem to be a pretty sight. Despite the setting being of the time of the rise of the Nazis, Brynych refrains from highlighting any of the actual events of the war or the holocaust.

The recurring shot of a smoking chimney perhaps reflects the grim picture of the holocaust, while the primary focus remains on the few who are still at an arm's length from inevitable doom, but living under tremendous mental torment. The psychological anguish resulting from the lack of stability in a society crumbling under turbulent conditions is the focal point of Zbyněk Brynych's film.

That the situation is wholly unpredictable is demonstrated in a brilliant sequence in which the injured resistance fighter is first discovered by the young boy in the building. He is seen from a distance riding his bicycle and falling off repeatedly. The boy is initially amused at the sight, thinking it to be some kind of a real life comedy of a bungling drunk, until he realizes what it is upon a closer look. Also during Braun's quest for morphine, one can see how most citizens are calming their nerves with booze while some others can't seem to control their debilitating mental state.

Dr. Braun's apartment building itself gives off an air of some kind of a claustrophobic chamber of death, with its echoing sounds of screaming inhabitants, crying children, and constantly fading lighting. Those low angle shots looking up at the winding staircase, sometimes with neighbours staring down suspiciously, while in turn evoking suspicion, resembles something straight out of a horror flick. These neighbours are another eclectic bunch and we meet them only briefly earlier on.

But in a rare masterstroke, Brynych completely shifts our attention to the other building tenants and their inside lives, instead of Braun in the final half hour when the suspense is at its peak. It is noteworthy how familiar the audiences get with these characters in a short period of time. It's just a slight letdown but not a major hitch, that in a drama so realistic and grave in nature, a couple of these characters are portrayed like unrealistic caricatures, notably Fanta, the warden and the cantankerous Mrs. Kratochvilova with her rabbits.

It is said that Brynych modeled this film as a veiled attack on Soviet communism, while narrating a story set against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation. "The Fifth Horseman is Fear" is an intense film that works either ways, given the similar oppressive political ideologies. With an intriguing central moral conflict, it succeeds in showcasing the resulting devastation, not of the physique, but of the psyche of man, in a very compelling manner.

Score: 9/10

Monday, October 5, 2015

Mephisto (1981)

Life imitates art with a cruelly ironic twist of fate for a small-time German theater actor during the rise of the Nazi party in pre-WWII Germany. 

István Szabó's Oscar winning "Mephisto" (1981), adapted from the Klaus Mann novel is a delicious twist on the Deal with the Devil motif. Born to play the character of Mephisto in a stage adaptation of the legend of Faust, Hendrik Hoefgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is an immensely talented and ambitious Hamburg actor. As pure evil (in the form of Nazi dictatorship) spreads its dark wings and descends upon them, Hoefgen finds out the hard way, that his performance of a lifetime would end up being that of a weak, Faust-like puppet in the hands of a higher Mephisto, the ruling Nazi General (Rolf Hoppe). As the General dictates Hoefgen's every move, he tempts him into giving up his very conscience in return for a respectable position and unprecedented success. Individual freedom, thought and morality be damned, as long as stardom and social standing is guaranteed.

But in hindsight, what Hoefgen does is very human. As his wife leaves him to flee the country, and some friends and colleagues join the resistance, fearing for the future of theater and arts, Hoefgen sticks to his guns, more out of fear and a strictly apolitical stance. He always maintains that it's none of his business who comes into power, as long as he gets to pursue his first love, that is acting. It dawns upon him rather late, but he anticipates it anyway, that he may find himself at the juncture where he may have to choose between success and freedom. In the Nazi rule, an end to freedom means an end to everything. When one loses their right to speak out against what seems morally wrong to the sane mind, when one has to forego their conscience and be a mute spectator as their friends are taken away to be bumped off for only raising a finger in protest, isn't it indeed, but an act of selling one's soul?

By his own admittance, Hoefgen is weak, as also pointed out by the General during their first meet. "It seems the secret of acting is to portray strength, yet one is weak", he remarks and laughs cheekily while commenting on Hoefgen's rather limp handshake and an undeniable kindness in the eyes of the man wearing the mask of Mephisto. Despite this, he makes his best efforts to save his friends of leftist tendencies and others, including the half German - half African girlfriend from being targeted for being racially impure. 

Acting is a central motif of "Mephisto" and its context and significance observes a shift through the film and through Hoefgen's gradual descent into hell. On a literal level, Hoefgen is this passionate actor, who regards his talent and art above everything else. It is interesting how his own viewpoint about his profession sees a marked change, from the beginning of the film, when at one point he asks "Do you know what it means to be an actor?" to a quote later (mentioned at the end of the review) in which it seems that he deems it a mere trifle in a drastic change of context.

"An actor is a mask", Hoefgen says. Sure enough, acting entails masking one's real self. In Szabó's film, acting also becomes a metaphor for conforming. With the Nazi party and its oppressive regime coming into power, individual thought and freedom is suppressed. Becoming a party to and complying with their authoritarian ways becomes the new role taken on by an individual, although not by their own accord. And this is where Hoefgen occupies the very center of the conflict between an individual and his/her actor counterpart, for Hoefgen is that passion-driven man who favours the actor in him more than anything else.

Acting is in his blood, and so when it comes to compliance, in return for success, it's merely a way of life for him; a transition, yes, but to a higher stature in the same profession, although it comes as a product of some degree of fear and the inability to uproot himself from his motherland. Aside from being a symbolic core of the story, Hoefgen is literally put in the center of two circles in two haunting scenes, one being a sort of Devils's dance, with a few guys wearing the masks of Mephisto encircling and dancing around him; and the other visually brilliant sequence, in which he is almost blinded by spotlights flashed from all sides, manoeuvring him like giant puppet strings.

Szabó balances the heavy thematic content of the film with an immaculately constructed screenplay that is quite detailed, but never skips a beat. A sense of foreboding and impending terror gradually makes its presence felt as the carefree mood of the beginning starts to dissolve into an air of fear and doom, and hints are sprinkled that the Nazis may come to power, threatening to change things for the worse. There are awfully bad things happening, but they are merely suggested and any instances of war-related or political atrocities are mostly kept off screen and out of the scope of the film, and yet the impact is never diluted. There is no room for any exaggerated melodrama and not a single wrong or awkward note is ever struck.

The theatrics are reserved only for the great Klaus Maria Brandauer, who delivers a heartfelt, electric performance to trump all performances. He showcases an amazing range, from going way over the top in his theater histrionics to shedding that silent, contemplative tear once in a while for a friend who may have lost his life for standing up against an autocratic system. Klaus takes on dual roles of Mephisto and Faust at the same time, an all-powerful actor, admired and sought after in the social circles for his titular role and also the meek pawn that is Faust, exalted or derided at the whim of his employer. And what a devilish employer too, with that cherubic face and yet an unmistakable malice evident from behind that sweet smile, a part played to perfection by Rolf Hoppe.

With immaculate casting and flawless writing and direction, this "Mephisto" (1981) casts a captivating spell 'til the credits start rolling. It has that rare ability to make us root for a very flawed hero, without itself taking any sides. And hence, we find ourselves simply nodding in agreement when Hoefgen breaks the fourth wall and exclaims, "What do they want of me? After all, I am only an actor!"

Score: 10/10